O‘ahu used to be home for at least 18 seabird species, with individuals ranging in the millions. Fossils found on the Ewa plains record that it was covered with seabirds. Today, with coastal development, human activities, invasive plants, and predators such as feral dogs, cats, and rats, O‘ahu’s seabirds face many challenges and have been greatly reduced in numbers. To learn more about seabirds, read on!
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Why Seabirds are Cool
- A parent albatross may fly more than 10,000 miles to find food and deliver it to its chick. That’s the equivalent of flying from Honolulu to Cape Town, South Africa!
- Seabirds are among the most diverse and widely distributed of all birds. They can be found foraging in polar ice at both ends of the earth.
- Wing spans range from 1 to 12 feet (almost twice the height of the tallest basketball player).
- Seabirds can weigh from one ounce (half an English muffin) to 20 pounds (a toddler).
- Nesting sites of seabirds include extreme habitats such as Antarctic icebergs, the tops of mountains, tundra, and remote islands.
- Frigatebirds can soar for two months straight and sleep while in flight. One bird soared for 40 miles without a single wing-flap! Part of the reason for this is that their feathers aren’t waterproof so they can’t rest on the ocean like other seabirds do – they would drown.
Individual Seabird Fact Sheets (including their biology, threats, and conservation needs)
These birds are currently found on O‘ahu, including the offshore islets, in nesting or roosting habitat:
- Black noddy (Noio)
- Brown noddy (Noio)
- Brown booby (‘A)
- Bulwer’s petrel (‘Ou)
- Christmas shearwater
- Gray-backed tern (Pakalakala)
- Great frigatebird (‘Iwa)
- Laysan albatross (Moli)
- Masked booby (A)
- Red-footed booby (‘A)
- Red-tailed tropicbird (Koa‘e ‘ula)
- Sooty tern (‘Ewa‘ewa)
- Wedge-tailed shearwater (‘Ua‘u kani)
- White-tailed tropicbird (Koa‘e kea)
- White (or Fairy) tern (Manu-o-Kū)
Though not yet established on land with nest sites or roosting colonies, these birds have been seen flying about O‘ahu and are part of the Hawaiian seabird community and surrounding marine ecosystems:
- Black-footed albatross (Ka‘upu)
- Hawaiian petrel (‘Ua‘u)
- Newell’s shearwater (‘A‘o)
- Tristram’s Storm-petrel
These birds were once on O‘ahu, but are not found today:
Seabirds were used by Native Hawaiians for navigation. They also alerted fishermen to schools of fish (and still do today). Native Hawaiians also observed seabird behavior to indicate changing weather patterns. Seabirds were harvested for food for the ali‘i and feathers used in kahili, lei hulu, and capes. Seabirds are also tied to Hawaiian beliefs and practices. For example, the great frigatebird or ‘iwa is associated with the goddess Kaiona of Mt. Ka‘ala on O‘ahu. The Laysan albatross and the black-footed albatross are both kinolau of Lono and hang on the Lono image during Makahiki.
Agencies and Organizations Supporting Seabird Work on O‘ahu
- State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife (Natural Area Reserve Program, Offshore Island Restoration Project)
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (National Wildlife Refuge, Ecological Services, Migratory Bird Program)
- Kaneohe Marine Corps Base of Hawai‘i
- Pacific Rim Conservation
- National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Pacific Seabird Program
- Island Conservation
- Hawaii Pacific University
- U.S. Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center
- Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge
- Partnership to Protect Hawaii’s Native Species
- Hui Manu O Kū
Laws and Permits
There are several state and federal laws protecting seabirds as well as permits related to interactions with seabirds. This can include handling them, disturbing them, possession (including feathers and eggs), and interfering with their breeding or nesting and rearing of young.
- Two seabirds are listed under the Endangered Species Act, a federal law. They are the Newell’s shearwater and Hawaiian Petrel. For any activities or actions that might impact these species (including research), you will need to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the proper permitting process. Please call 808-792-9400 for more information or visit their consultation and habitat conservation planning program website.
- All seabirds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), a federal law. This law makes any activities which would result in possession or harm of a seabird illegal unless authorized by a federal permit. For guidance about this law, please contact Jenny Hoskins with the Migratory Birds and Habitat Programs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (firstname.lastname@example.org). Or visit the USFWS migratory bird website where you can find information on how to avoid impacts to seabirds.
- Seabirds are protected in Hawai‘i Administrative Rules Chapter 13-124 Indigenous Wildlife, Endangered And Threatened Wildlife, and Introduced Wild Birds and in Chapter 13-126 Rules Regulating Wildlife Sanctuaries. For questions, please contact the Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s O‘ahu branch at 808-973-9777.
- The State of Hawai‘i DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife has a Federal Bird Banding Permit (08487), which allows named individuals to band and handle seabirds.
Books, articles, news, conservation plans, teacher resources
- Interactive map of Wedge-tailed Shearwater colonies on Oahu that shows the location and estimated population size produced by the USFWS and USGS. Each colony features a pop-up window that lists jurisdiction, colony monitoring trends, invasive species, and conservation measures. This map can be used to help inform developers, managers, researchers, and members of the public about the presence and management of Wedge-tailed Shearwater colonies on O‘ahu.
- A story map of the history of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters on O`ahu and information about their biology.
- Seabirds of Hawai‘i: Natural History and Conservation by Craig S. Harrison (click here for a link to Google books)
- Hawaiian Birds of the Sea, Nā Manu Kai by Robert J. Shallenberger
- Biology of Marine Birds edited by E.A. Schreiber and Joanna Burger (click here for a link to Google books)
- Pyle, R.L., and P. Pyle. 2017. The Birds of the Hawaiian Islands: Occurrence, History, Distribution, and Status. B.P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, HI, U.S.A. Version 2 (1 January 2017) This site provides an official checklist for all species of birds documented as occurring in the Hawaiian Islands
- Recent Gap analysis of seabird monitoring in the US Tropical Pacific by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Pacific Rim Conservation
- A perfect day for an Albatross by Caren Loebel-Fried
- National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Business Plan for the Conservation of Pacific Seabirds
- Acid Attack is an article that talks about the effects of yellow crazy ants on our seabirds. You can also see a video on our media gallery page
- This 5 Year Plan (2008-2012) that was developed by the Hawai‘i Offshore Islet Restoration Committee has great information and references for seabirds on O’ahu (in addition to other areas of our state)
- Covered by KHON-2 news, this news piece talks about why feral cats are a threat to nesting albatross
- Read why ants are a major problem for seabirds
- Read why Hawaiian petrels, once so abundant, are declining
- Winged ambassadors has lesson plans for ocean literacy through the eyes of albatross